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Stop Forcing Start Flowing: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Optimal Experience

Flow: A Better Way

How to live a better, more meaningful life? A question that has no shortage of solutions, home remedies and anecdotes, all seeking to address this pressing issue. In our modern, self-centered consumerized culture, we all too often fall prey to the notion that buying more things will make us happy and fulfilled. “I will be happy when I buy that new piece of crap, and add it to the collection of all my old crap,” so the notion goes. But if you are reading my blog you are looking for something more. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi author of the book, Flow outlines the steps necessary for you to experience such a phenoma. Csikszentmihalyi believes that the more optimal experiences or flow states we can enter into, the happier and more satisfying our lives will become. Flow is described as a state in which timelessness, a sense of purpose and a loss of self are all experienced while in the pursuit of a challenging goal. Flow forces you into the moment, making you forget the bills that need to be paid, the pressures from work and family, and those annoying little  tidbits of day-to-day life. Optimal experiences act as an exit, affording you a productive, enriching growth-inducing experience while simultaneously separating you from your larger ego.

And it is energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience (Csikszentmihalyi 33).

The Requirements

There are five separate elements that need to be designed into any activity for it to become a flow-producing experience. First, an overall goal must be established. This is the foundation upon which the other steps can be built. Take running for an example. If I were to run every morning, using the same trails, while maintaining the same pace, not only would I have no way of measuring progress, but it would be impossible for me to transform my run into a flow activity. It would be simple repetition, which after some time I would get used to and my body would as well, hindering my future development as a runner.

Measuring Progress

The second pillar of a flow activity is measuring progress in the context of the overarching goal. Now, If I were to measure my route, and time how long it took me to get to my designated finish line, I would have numbers and data in order to evaluate my performance and make meaningful adjustments. It is said in business that what is measured can be managed. The same idea holds true for flow activities. Also, when you compare your current performance to the data, it gives you a standard to measure the goal against. Rather than guessing about your progress, you know how you are doing in this goal area!

Flow and Focus

Third, you must focus on the task at hand if you want to transform the mundane into a flow activity. In those awful prequels Star Wars offered the world in the early 2000’s, Qui Gon Jinn tells a young Anakin Skywalker that “your focus determines your reality.”  He was right! This is particularly profound information when attempting to produce your own optimal experience. Though your focus, adjustments can be made, and you can inch ever closer to accomplishing your outlined goal. If all these steps seem to blend together, it’s because they do. They are built on one another. If you remove one of these conditions from a flow inducing activity it will cease to bring about the desired effect.

Raise The Stakes

And finally, you must keep upping the wager! Yesterday I ran two miles in 16:45 seconds. Let’s cut that time down by 15 seconds tomorrow! If I keep pushing myself towards a better time; because I measured my progress, just paid attention, and built up endurance, it is now possible for me to up the ante and improve my time. If done in the correct sequence, a flow experience is sure to bring a level of transformation to your life, and in turn, bring you more fulfillment. The steps outlined by Csikszentmihalyi can be applied to almost any area of life, giving you the ability to make little enjoyable experiences everywhere you go!

What Flow Is NOT

One would say that watching TV could be considered a flow activity. You have the goal of finishing the totality of Breaking Bad in one night, and you can measure your progress by the time you have wasted.  Yay! Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. For an activity to be optimal there must be– and this is key– the development of a skill that is required to reach the goal.  Your lofty goal of watching Walter White sell drugs requires no skill other than planting your ass in front of  the TV. Let’s go back to the running example. I must develop the skill of endurance to decrease the amount of time it takes me to run two miles.

Now Do It, Flow!

I challenge you to pick up one activity that can be flow inducing. For me, it’s writing. At times, there is nothing more enjoyable to me that being locked into a piece of writing, attempting to put words onto paper that, all too often, do not want to be there. The challenge of conveying ideas effectively and the goal of improving upon my clarity all cause me to experience a sense of flow. These activities do not have to be dangerous. One can as easily experience flow while playing a game of chess as when climbing a mountain. By taking this step of finding an activity that can be flow inducing, you are actively improving your life!


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